Sun Junkies?: Is tanning just like heroin?
By Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D., July 22, 2014
The news media have been all hot and bothered about a new study published in Cell Magazine. The study, conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School, exposed mice to UV light and found that their skin cells produced b-endorphins. This led the mice to increase their pain threshold, and respond to medications meant to block opioid function. After chronic exposure, the mice experienced withdrawal symptoms when presented with opioid blockers.
In other words, they appeared to be “addicted” to sunlight. The idea that mice might be slaves to sun worshipping leads fairly quickly to the question of whether we might demonstrate a similar biochemical response, and whether tanning salons might be the equivalent of opium dens, hooking people on UV light. Is the tanning industry built not out of people who want to be tanned at all times, but rather out of addicts looking for another fix?
If you guessed the latter, congratulations, you qualify as a journalist:
- Sun Tanning May Act As An Addiction In The Brain, said Forbes.com,
- Soak Up the Sun? You May Be a Tanning Addict, said NBC News,
- Study: Tanning addictive, like heroin, said the Washington Post and
- As scientists say sunbathing can be addictive as heroin, one suntan junkie says ‘I’d rather risk cancer (and wrinkles) than kick my tan addiction,’ said the Daily Mail.
But then what choice did journalists really have, given that the authors of the study concluded, “It may be necessary … to more proactively protect individuals, including teens, from the risks of an avoidable, potentially life-threatening exposure and to view recreational tanning and opioid drug abuse as engaging in the same biological pathway.” How could the news media avoid the “A” word (“addiction”), when the study effectively compared the desire for a tan with the desire for another hit of heroin.
But before we condemn any activity that uses these biological pathways, and suggests that such activities are comparable to heroin, we should consider what other behaviors travel along these same biological pathways.
Exercise, for one. These same b-endorphins are produced by getting on that elliptical, or taking a run. And the same reduction of pain is observed as well, as the runner’s high often takes away those mild aches and pains. Should we be fearful of running? Are marathons the equivalent of Miami Beach, heroin-like highs for craving automatons? Of course, not. In fact, the news media want you to run in order to lose weight, avoid diabetes, boost your heart, and improve your mental well being,
Know what else is another source of feel-good b-endorphins? Orgasms. Orgasms are the virtual equivalent of poppy fields: they produce the endorphins that serve as a natural opioid – and they negotiate the same biological pathways indicted by those worried about the addictive behavior of sun seekers. Do we want to avoid orgasms because their activation might, biochemically, resemble heroin?
What separates tanning from exercise or sex, and all of these from heroin? For one, heroin is much more likely to ruin people’s lives. Survivors of heroin use describe wrenching stories about trying to kick their addictions. And while we have heard stories about people who seem compelled to exercise and have sex in ways that don’t seem particularly healthy, there is a huge difference in degree. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there are over 100,000 new heroin users per year; the National Vital Statistics System indicates about 2000 deaths from heroin overdoses each year. Overall in the United States, over 38,000 people die due to drug overdose – making the problem of drug overdose a similar magnitude of public health concern as car accidents and firearms deaths.
If it was simply a matter of a biological pathway being activated then “addictive” running and sex would result in similar numbers of victims. So it is useful to be reminded of what we understand addiction to mean. The American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM)’s short definition is as follows:
Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.
In other words, addiction has a behavioral manifestation. While the nation looked in horror on the New Jersey tanaholic Patricia Krentcil, she appears to be the exception rather than the norm. Rarely do we see tanning addicts clawing their way out of their offices, unable to control their desire for the beach, and ruining relationships at work and at home in order to satisfy that craving for the sun. The idea that a biological pathway is a one-way street implying a fixed outcome, a certain destination, for anyone who travels along it is deeply problematic. The only thing we can say for certain is that making an analogy with heroin or cocaine gets your study headlines.
This was written with partial support from National Science Foundation DMS #202726.